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A garrulous disquisition in which I explain my, and my wife’s, recent recathection of the life and work of Bob Dylan before using lessons from an analysis of the song Lilly, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts as a template to support my contention that the song Blind Willie McTell offers a simple yet diamond-hard explanation of one of the central mysteries of Dylan’s career.

For some months now, my wife Cecilia and I have been enthralled to find ourselves in an unexpected and surprisingly deep engagement with every aspect of the work and career of Bob Dylan.  For me, he’s always been there, still oddly jagged-edged no matter how blunted his cultural resonance has become over the years. (I have a complex relationship with classic rock; I know it well, having been an avid music consumer while much of it was being released, but I listen to a great deal of free-form radio (WFMU!) that rarely if ever plays it.) Dylan was at once one of the pillars of mainstream rock radio and a potent cultural provocateur whose sheer weirdness was both mystifying and endearing. He has always been a foundation, an enigma, an irritation, a brilliant black hole who changed everything and remained himself stubbornly unchanged. I’ve seen him a number of times, and met him once, a strange and remarkable story I’ll tell in some other blog post someday. Though he had remained a subject of interest, I had, over the years, relegated him to a far corner of my mental museum, certainly worth visiting but rather thoroughly examined and catalogued and defined.

For my wife, the associations were different. For one thing, the jangle of acoustic guitars reeked of the tiresome sincerity of church services desperate to be relevant to The Young. Again, Dylan was a permanent star in the pop music firmament, obviously talented, obviously Important, but not primary to her own cultural obsessions.  She had even seen him, back when he toured with Tom Petty, though the primary focus of her attention had been Petty.

The first Dylan album that I purchased real-time—ie when it first came out, as opposed to a greatest-hits or record-from-the-past purchase—was Blood on the Tracks, which very much rocked my little world back in the day. Every word and note of that record is engrooved in my brain (“I know every scene by heart, they all went by so faaaaaassssssssst“); it has aged, I’m delighted to say, very well, and the songs still strike new sparks of profundity at any serious listen.

From then on, I was an avid amateur Dylanologist. I saw the Rolling Thunder tour at Madison Square Garden, Dylan in whiteface, Sam Shepherd and Joan Baez and Allan Ginsburg onstage with Ruben “Hurricane” Carter’s voice booming through the vast space from a payphone in his prison. I kept my distance, baffled, through the Christian era, took heart at Infidels, his return to secular mainstream rock (good record, that, even after all these years). Saw him with Petty, saw him with the Dead (God, that was unmemorable, and I’m a Deadhead), met him once, and then pretty much let him ride.

My wife, on the other hand, had found much of interest in an iconography of empowered women–Madonna, Chrissie Hynde. Dylan was part of the landscape, but rarely if ever in the foreground.

Perhaps a decade ago I purchased the 2-disc set of the once-oft-bootlegged 1966 British tour “Royal Albert Hall” show—the one where someone in the audience yells “JUDAS!” towards the end of the electric set. Dylan’s response is classic, one of the great Rock and Roll Quotes: “I don’t be-LEEEEEEVE you,” he says, and then: “You’re a LIAR!” Then—you can barely make it out on the recording, but once you do it’s unmissable—he turns to the band and says: “Play Fucking Loud.”

And they do. They catapult into Like a Rolling Stone, as if, as a friend of mine once said, it’s the first time they ever played it.

The thing is, that moment is a capstone to a recording that is absolutely superb from start to finish. The first disc—the first set—is acoustic, him playing and singing at the top of his pre-motorcycle accident game. Impassioned, unique and surprising vocals, lilting harmonica, brilliant songs and twisted lyrics, it’s gorgeous. And then the second set—the second disc— well, it’s the nucleus of what will later be The Band, without Levon Helm on drums but the drummer, Mickey Jones, is absolutely perfect for the material—propulsive, forward-thinking, playing the songs to the limit from inside. He’s pointing to what comes next, not what’s happening now or what just happened (Ringo’s failing, God bless him, and a lot of other drummers as well), and it’s transcendent, as good as rock and roll could ever hope to be.

My lovely wife took note of how good that CD was, but it didn’t change her daily meanderings. Dylan sank, once again, deep into the undercurrents of our quotidian existence.

And then, six months ago, out of nowhere I abruptly had an urgent need to read his autobiographical Chronicles: Volume One, published in 2004. It was, suddenly, the next book I needed to buy. So I did, and read it—magnificent; as good, in its rambling way, as Patty Smith’s memoir Just Kids, her fantastic recreation of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorp. But Smith tells a compact and compelling narrative with a breathless characterological arc, while Dylan is dealing out memories with the randomness of a poker dealer. He’s a garrulous and fascinating houseguest who manages to both take up all your time and never overstays his welcome.

And, as Cecilia points out, while the book explores many emotions and contradictions, what comes out finally is a fundamental feeling of gratitude—toward his audience, but also toward the people who made him and helped him and changed him and allowed him to continue to be Dylan.

That book upped the Dylan ante in our household quite a bit—I read Cecilia good lines as they came up, we discussed various aspects of our respective Dylan memories, we started looking at Youtube clips. She bought me Suze Rotolo’s memoir A Freewheelin’ Time, Rotolo being the brunette on Dylan’s arm on the Greenwich Village street on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963). With that, Dylan became a running topic of conversation as Cecilia went deep into song after song. And then we saw Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, and the thing simply exploded.

The movie isn’t so much a biography of Dylan as a fever dream about him. Five actors play the man at various stages of his career, not all sympathetically, none with quite his name. Heath Ledger’s absent Woodstock dad is actually rather an unremittent bastard, while Richard Gere’s Peckinpah-era hermit/pilgrim would appear to be atoning for those sins; the pre-New York Dylan is played by a young black child, living the freight-hopping outsider life Dylan came to New York presenting as having had. But it is the pre-motorcycle accident Androgyne Thin White Duke British Invasion Dylan, played brilliantly by Cate Blanchett, that made the gears mesh and sent Cecilia on her current course of becoming an absolute Dylanological Completist.

Blanchett’s performance gave Cecilia a path into understanding that “JUDAS!” moment, and what was at stake. The fact that Blanchett is a woman allowed Cecilia to get beyond Dylan’s cockiness, and the overbearing Zep-era cock-rock that came after and shed a distasteful light, from her perspective, on what had come before. And then the fact that we had the real concert on CD—and that it’s brilliant, one of the vital records that everyone must hear at least once—propelled us into our current height of AJ Weberman-level Dylanology.

Now: Cecilia has two master degrees and a PhD, so when she shines her critical faculties on deconstructing something, it gets deconstructed, and it stays deconstructed.  Her PhD featured, among other things, a trauma theory interpretation of Long Day’s Journey Into Night that managed to tease out meanings not found in any of the academic studies of that overstudied play (trust me; she looked).  To have this level of discourse about Dylan at this moment of our marriage is an unexpected delight, the kind of new discovery that allows marriages to expand in unseen ways.

And it’s allowed me to show her Dylan stuff I love. Ferinstance, Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts off of Blood in the Tracks. Here we have an entire filmic narrative, no imagistic poetry or wordplay. The song is structurally a polka; the lyric is a realistic Western movie involving a charming outlaw who serves as a catalyst for the events around him without himself being changed by any of them.  The entire thing takes place in a classic Western movie saloon/hotel. The 15 verses on the record introduce 4 major and a handful of minor characters: Lilly, a showgirl, “was a princess who was fair-skinned and precious as a child/She did whatever she had to do, she had that certain flash every time she smiled, ” Big Jim who was “no one’s fool/he owned the town’s only diamond mine” and is having an affair with Lilly, and Rosemary, described as “a queen without a crown” who is “tired of playing the role of Big Jim’s wife. She had done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide/was looking to do one good deed before she died.” Over the course of the evening, as the Jack of Hearts’ boys drill through the wall to clean out the bank safe, Jack enters Lilly’s dressing room; she knows him from some unnamed past encounter, and they banter in a not terribly romantic way. They are caught doing so by Big Jim (and Rosemary, who is with him), and a confrontation presumably occurs.

No one knew the circumstance but they say that it happened pretty quick
The door to the dressing room burst open and a cold revolver clicked
And Big Jim was standin’ there, ya couldn’t say surprised
Rosemary right beside him, steady in her eyes
She was with Big Jim but she was leanin’ to the Jack of Hearts

The next relevant verse begins: “The next day was hanging day/ the sky was overcast and black/ Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back/And Rosemary at the gallows, she didn’t even blink…the only person on the scene missing was the Jack of Hearts.

But what happened? What was the confrontation? Who actually killed Big Jim? On the recorded version, he does not tell us this central mystery. But the version of the song on his official website has 16 verses—not 15, as on the record—and the missing verse fills in the major motivational details:

Lily’s arms were locked around the man that she dearly loved to touch
She forgot all about the man she couldn’t stand who hounded her so much
“I’ve missed you so,” she said to him, and he felt she was sincere
But just beyond the door he felt jealousy and fear
Just another night in the life of the Jack of Hearts

So Lilly and the Jack were in fact romantic. And they were caught in flagrante delicto by Big Jim and Rosemary. Jim cocks his cold revolver, and Rosemary, to save Jack (and perhaps even Lilly) stabs him with a pen knife she had been toying with earlier in the song.

Why would Dylan sing 15 verses of a song and leave out the central confrontation that is only explicable with the unsung 16th verse? Because he’s Dylan, and, as this example proves, he often conceals the most important aspects of his work. He is both wide open—the man has released almost 500 songs; nobody has the kind of output he’s achieved—and, in important matters, careful to hide behind a wall of impenetrability. He knows the solution to the mystery, he’s worked it out, but it’s not part of the song as recorded. Eventually, though, if you stick with him, he casually gives the secret away when he publishes the song.

Which brings us to Blind Willie McTell.

Blood on the Tracks, released in 1975, is generally acknowledged to chronicle Dylan’s divorce from Sarah, his first wife. (In the Chronicles, he claims that it all came from Chekhov short stories, but, uhh, no, not if you read any interviews with Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers, his son, who has said he hears his parents whenever he hears that record.) After that came Desire (1976), a less complex record with timely cultural resonance (Hurricane Carter!). Desire was in the top 100 for 35 weeks, double what Blood did, and longer than any record since the early ones. Then came a slow decline—a greatest hits record, then Street Legal (1978), then a live record, and then…

And then he finds Jesus. And makes 3 records testifying to his new born again faith—Slow Train Coming in 1979, Saved in 1980 and Shot of Love in 1981.  These records chart, but not the way he used to. And the vast majority of his old fans are utterly put off, me included. Is he always going to do this from now on?

Of course not. We should have known better. This is a man whose entire career has been about refusing to be pinned down, about refusing to be the person you expected, or wanted, or needed him to be.  It ain’t him, babe, no no no it ain’t him you’re looking for.

If you’re gonna call this guy JUDAS! In the middle of the best concert he’s ever played, he’s damn well going to prove you’re not right.

Thus, for that and a hundred thousand other reasons, Jesus. For three albums. And then, because he really doesn’t like to be pinned down: Infidels. Which is the perfect title, considering.

The great question posed by Infidels was: what the hell happened? His conversion to born-again Christianity had obviously been a serious matter, a three-year affair. He’d given it his all, and he’d walked away. There had to be some clue on Infidels that would shed light on the entire experience.

Well, actually, there were tons of them, all the way through. But it turned out he’d recorded an absolutely brilliant song that explained everything, if you heard it right, but he had elected not to put it on the album. That song was Blind Willie McTell.

The story is that Mark Knopfler, the Dire Straights guitarist (who is, ummm, really really good—the guitar lead on Sultans of Swing is entirely fingerpicking, which, um, wow) played guitar on Blind Willie McTell, and was so disgusted when Dylan said he wasn’t going to put it on the album that he walked away from the project.

Blind Willie McTell wouldn’t officially see the light of day until 1991, when it was included on The Bootleg Series Volume 1-3: Rare and Unreleased 1961-1991. (Lately, the man has taken to playing it live on his never-ending tour, so it’s officially part of the canon, now. Just like the missing verse of Jack of Hearts, though according to his website he has played Jack live precisely once, on May 25, 1976.)

But some of us knew the song. When Infidels came out, I managed to purchase a bootleg of early outtakes from those recording sessions, called Outfidels (label: Les Disques Du Porcupine) which contained everything on the released record and two more songs that had been cut, listed on the LP as Untitled 1 and Untitled 2.

Untitled 1 was Blind Willie McTell. And listening to it, I felt as Mark Knopfler must have felt: this song was brilliant, the best thing Dylan had done in decades—why wasn’t it on the official record? Why had he left it off?

Now, all these years later, my wife and I are currently steeped in Dylanology, learning from his work the truths and beauties that are there for people our age to learn, and I have returned to this question. And I believe—it’s always tricky to say this about Dylan, he always resists being pinned down—but I believe I have an answer.

If you consider Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, the verse he left out was the most important of the song—the one that actually tells the story of the confrontation, the piece of information without which nothing else makes sense.

By that logic, then, Blind Willie McTell couldn’t be on Infidels because it told the truth too plainly.

There’s another piece of logic, as well: the song is structurally similar to the traditional classic, St James Infirmary Blues. Recorded as a dirge by Louis Armstrong and as a swinging party by Cab Callaway, the song has claimed at least two authors, and probably more. And since St James Infirmary was a hospital in London, its origins are anybody’s guess.

But Dylan acknowledges that connection in the final verse:

Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s His
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

And besides, reworking a traditional song that’s been around for a hundred years or more is the kind of thing Dylan does before breakfast. So why would he be fastidious about this one?

Well, consider the first verse:

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem”
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

All right, here comes the interpretation:

Consider the arrow a primitive, even primal, piece of communication, blocking progress through a door, and the message it’s communicating is: this land can’t be inhabited, all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem. All the way from the new world to the old, perhaps. Perhaps even: all the way from the new testament (“New Orleans”) to the old (“Jerusalem”).

I traveled through East Texas/Where many martyrs fell—well, if anyone can sing the blues, its someone who died for what they believed, right? A martyr’s death, no matter how holy, is an exercise in pathos. It may be beautiful, but if it is, it’s beautiful in the way the blues is beautiful—as an exposition of the necessity of human suffering in the cause of something greater. In secular music, that something is usually love, but it doesn’t have to be. But however beautiful the blues created by these East Texas martyrs, none of them can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.

Well, I heard that hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

The charcoal gypsy maidens suggest that the tents being taken down are circus tents or something similar, as opposed to military tents. Weirdly, this mirrors the imagery in the first verse of Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts:

The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down
Anyone with any sense had already left town

But Blind Willie McTell is a distinctly more somber song, and the hoot owl suggests something more deeply personal: I heard the hoot owl singing…the stars above the barren trees were his only audience.

Well, that’s a contradiction in terms, isn’t it? The narrator heard the hoot owl, but was not the audience. It only makes sense if the hoot owl is actually the singer, alone under the stars in a barren land, with no audience.  Just—alone. And the charcoal gypsy maidens are no help, nor is the succor they could provide, because the fact that nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell renders them irrelevant. They are no more the answer to the hoot owl’s existential despair than the East Texas martyrs were, and we’ve already seen how that worked out.

Now comes the identifiably historical stuff. Dylan didn’t go to college, not really, but he did hole himself up in the New York Public Library one summer and read his way through the Civil War as reported in the era’s daily newspapers. He is, by all accounts, an avid reader and deeply culturally literate.

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Man’s inhumanity to man, of course, and the birth of the blues from the original sins of slavery and the destruction of the Indian, all in one verse. No Christianity in the undertaker’s bell; no redemption there, except for the fact that nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.

There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There’s a woman by the river being seduced by someone presenting themselves as something they’re not—by a fraud who is like a squire, but not a squire, whose whiskey isn’t even what it claims to be. And meanwhile all hell is breaking loose, but even with all that…no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.

And now we get back to that final verse. Consider it again:

Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s His
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Makes perfect sense, right? God is in His heaven and we all want to know the peace that passeth understanding, the salvation and redemption that is only his to provide. But that has been overpowered by power and greed and—oh, man, great phrase—corruptible seed—the inherent imperfections of humanity, the flaw at the root of our fundamental genetic and personal reality. God may be in heaven and we may all want to be like Him, but humanity is so flawed, and so wounded, that even our worship of God is corrupted by power and greed, and the broken reality of humanity seems to be all that there is.

I’m gazing out the window/of the St James Hotel: 10 words. Has there ever been a more concise metaphor for the true nature of the human condition? Our souls may be eternal, but our bodies are merely hotels, transient places we inhabit temporarily before moving on. And as the singer gazes out from this transient corruptible imperfect hotel, as he looks at the entirety of everything that he can possibly see as a human being, there is only one thing he knows for rock-solid certain: No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.

That’s why Dylan left Christianity. Because the music was more real, and more at the core of his true belief, than anything else. It took him three years, and three albums, but he walked away from it absolutely knowing one thing, down to the furthest reaches and depths of his being:

No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.

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